The exam and testing malarkey

I was looking at enrolling my 12 year old daughter in some correspondence courses for home-educated children. I called the company up to ask which level course she should enrol in. I was advised to find some past SATS papers for her to do to find out what “level” she is currently at, and then we can decide whether to enrol her in their courses. They told me that their correspondence course for 11-12 year olds in Key Stage 3 (which would be the same academic level she would be doing, if she is in school) should ideally be done by children who are already working at level 3 or 4 – if I had my daughter do the past SATS papers, I would be able to know which level she is working at right now.

What are SATS? Well in England, all primary school children have to take the SATS tests administered in Year 2 (when they are around 7 years of age) and in Year 6 (when they are around 11 years of age). If you are home-educating, your children are not required to do those tests.

I was a bit stumped at that point because I am very familiar with the Singapore-Cambridge GCE O Level system but had no idea about English school SATS systems, so I asked them where I can get hold of these past SATS test papers. They said they’ve heard from some parents that it was pretty easy to Google up these things. After I hung up, I decided to have a go at Googling them up myself, and found ones you could buy – in the form of CGP SATS test books and packages. They don’t seem to me to be real past papers but rather like mock exam papers. Then I also found, on this particular website, past SATS papers – actual past papers. You just register your email for an account, download them for free and print them out yourself. That’s handy! Of course I took the free and actual past SATS papers. No need to spend an extra penny. Ha! I never liked this exam malarkey anyway, even though I was a pretty good exam-taker myself. I’ve never seen the point of modern exams, what with all the regurgitating and cramming kids had to do for the sake of passing them well and getting that piece of paper at the end – the certificate. Oh great. Then half a month later, most of what the kids studied for exams have been forgotten. The certificate says someone has “mastered” a subject, but if that someone forgets most of the info they crammed for passing the subject exam which gave them that certificate, does that certificate really certify a mastery of the subject? Nope. All it does is certify the person’s ability to cram and regurgitate for exams. I hate teaching to the test for this reason.

But… exams do have their place. Like it or not, the certificates we get at the end of exams are one of the most straightforward ways of getting us into college or a job (more the case for college though) – i.e. if you want to become an engineer next time, getting A’s in your Maths and Physics exams are a quick way to let the University or College you’re applying to know that you are capable of coping with their course. These days they probably wouldn’t let you in anyway if you hadn’t achieved decent grades in these subjects before applying to do Engineering at Uni, for example. Exams are also a way of knowing where your child stands in relation to the “general population”. That’s what these SATS are for too. I found with the SATS Marking Scheme that came with the past papers, it came with charts showing where the child is in relation to the “general populace” at his/her age group. Whether your child is in the 75%, or the top 25%, top 10%, whatever. I’m also glad that instead of being quick to take my money, the course provider actually wanted me to be sure my child was able to cope with the demands of their courses and advised me to have my child take the SATS tests at home so I can “place” her on the right level.

So I had my eldest do her KS2 SATS papers in English and Maths. In fact, I found the 2014 KS2 SATS papers online, which she would have done last May if she were in school. She was quite enthused to do them actually. She has a competitive streak in her – not always obvious, but it showed this time. She wanted to know how well she would have done if she had done the tests at school with her other ex-classmates. Turns out she is working at a Level 5 in both Maths and English. An average high school student in England at her age should be working at a Level 3 minimum, and by the time kids in schools here take their GCSEs at 16 years of age, they should be working at a Level 6. So Level 5 is not that far off really. Since she is already at Level 5, she is ready to commence studying for GCSEs if she likes, at this point, although I prefer to keep it relaxed and let her go at the pace she prefers. I’m not into hothousing, and I don’t think she really wants to either.

My husband has always been a teensy bit sceptical of homeschooling and doubtful that I, in my somewhat DIY way of home educating my children, would be as effective as a school teacher. Even more was his scepticism at unschooling and I would say that my home education style tends to swing between periods of structure and periods of unschooling. Sometimes he tells me I’m not giving my kids “enough work to do” even though I told him they’re fine. Well isn’t that quite typical? Like many other home-educating mothers, I am the driving force behind the decision to home-educate. My husband, even though he hated school and wasn’t academic (unlike me), was sufficiently indoctrinated in the system to believe that “only school teachers can teach.” He could see the point about school being a waste of time, but he was still doubtful that a child could get a good education in a relaxed home environment. To him, a child can only be forced to learn boring (to him!) academics in an old-fashioned school room type of way, with a stern matron/bossy alpha male school teacher heading the class. The kind he had experienced in school. He didn’t do well in school even in that environment, but he believed he would have done worse if he hadn’t been schooled that way. It was, to him, a lesser evil.

Her results kind of quashed all his doubts once and for all. For the first time in my life, I was actually glad about someone taking an exam paper! Now my husband will stop commenting every once in a blue moon about how I’m not “giving my kids enough work”. He used to think home education should take 5 hours a day like school does. No matter how much I tried explaining to him that home education doesn’t work like school and that for home education, a student will really need less than half the time they spend in school to achieve the same level of progress. Well now he is convinced.

I went one step further to further quash his doubts even more. I downloaded and printed out past KS1 SATS papers and had my younger daughter do them, just to see what level she was working at too. My younger daughter is 8 now and would have been subject to the KS1 SATS last year if she was going to school. Well, the test results show she is currently working at Level 3 comfortably. She got almost all the questions in her Level 3 tests correct. Kids in school at her age would be working at a minimum of a Level 2, so the fact she is easily a Level 3 means she is doing well in school standards – that one is for my husband. He said he was very impressed with my girls and that he now has nothing to worry about – which of course means I don’t have to worry about him worrying!

Now my son was born just 7 days short of September and so if he went to school, he would possibly be the very youngest in class. In terms of academic performance, his age shows. He would be in Year 2 now if he entered school at the prescribed age for his birthday. If he was in school, he would be forced to take KS1 SATS tests this year – similar to the ones my 8 year old daughter had done at home recently and achieved Level 3 grades in. She did well, and found them easy, but I know my son wouldn’t. He was late for his school age in learning to write, learning to read. His Maths is very good naturally. He was just born with this love of Maths. I remember when he was potty-training, he would sit on the toilet and tell me Maths facts he figured out himself while sitting there, like 5 + 5 = 10. But he would find the English part of the SATS really hard, I have no doubt about it. Having seen the KS1 English SATS papers my 8 year old just did, I know my son would struggle. And he being a really intelligent and sensitive child, would be disheartened if he went to school and felt like he was “stupid” for not being able to do as well as his other classmates, who would probably all be older than him technically. Knowing him, he would hate “learning” school-style if forced to work above his level.

Sending him to mainstream school? Hmm… unless I could get the headteacher to put him in a class one year younger than the one he would have gone to based on his birth date, I would fight – seriously fight – for the freedom to home educate him. And I would NEVER make him do the English SATS especially, not until he was a year older than he is now.

So there’s that. My personal opinion on the SATS, as well as all school exams in life. They’re fine and dandy if the child is working at a level at or above the “general populace”, and in that case, just good as a tool to “reassure” parents and teachers that their children are “fine”. But not all people are the same and some kids will inevitably struggle. Not because they are stupid, but because well, we all have different gifts. SATS are not going to tell you what your child’s gifts are. And worse, because English schools these days are pitted against other schools based on their school children’s SATS test results each year (hence the English school league tables), schools are teaching to the test as a rule, in order to ensure the school performs well in SATS testing. Fine if your child fits the mould, but definitely not good if your child doesn’t. I home educate because I don’t care about my children fitting school-invented moulds. I want them to grow up happy and free. I want them to love learning, but I think school kind of kills that love of learning for many kids because of teaching to the test.

In Singapore, primary students all have to take the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Exam) at around 12 years old in their last year of primary school. Their grades scored in the PSLE will determine what education stream and what kind of school they will go to. Even homeschoolers in Singapore are required to take the PSLE. And if they fail them, they have to retake them till they pass, if I’m not wrong on that. And all homeschooling parents in Singapore have to have at least an undergraduate degree to homeschool.

In Singapore schools, there are routine examinations twice yearly in all taught subjects. Then every student gets an End Of Year Report Card that clearly states the grades they achieved in the twice-yearly exams and what “ranking” they are in their class – based on their exam grades. So everyone knows who’s “cleverest” and who wasn’t.

And there was, and still are Singapore school league tables like the ones in England now. They have always existed. I was a student in Singapore in the 80s and 90s and was totally used to all this. The competition, the academic rigour, the academic streaming, how people judged a person based on which school they went to, and children cared about what academic “ranking” they were in class. All this existed in Singapore back in the 80s already. It is no surprise that East Asian countries top the PISA rankings every year. Why is that such a surprise? I know personally what the Singaporean system was like back then, and it’s gotten even more competitive now! I cannot imagine it could get any more competitive than it was, but yes it is worse now. I heard from friends that Singaporean parents nowadays have to do volunteer work for 2 or 3 years for the school of their choice, before the school will even consider giving a place to their child. We’re talking about the good, desirable schools here yeah…

Before I returned to the UK, I thought the English academic system would be different and less competitive and holistic, and maybe it used to be, I don’t know, but the English educational system I see here has been slowly but steadily inching towards the Singaporean model every passing year.

I don’t know what will become of this. I hope it doesn’t become like Singapore’s is today.

Life is not about aceing exams. This is why I home educate, and I hope the freedom to home educate will continue so here. Emigration is always a possibility, but hopefully we will not have to resort to that. I grew up with many Singaporean friends who have now emigrated from Singapore and don’t wish to raise their kids there. We should ask why this is so, and question whether it’s a good idea for the English school system to emulate Asian school systems such as Singapore’s.

 

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2 thoughts on “The exam and testing malarkey

  1. Pingback: Reading Eggs and Reading Eggspress | Tickly Feet

  2. Pingback: Delegating the education for a teenager… | Tickly Feet

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